GNWT barge company under pressure to produce, says Kitikmeot Chamber president

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The GNWT, whose final barge of the season failed to deliver critical supplies to Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay and Paulatuk last year, has something to prove to the Kitikmeot, says the president of the region’s chamber of commerce.

Marine Transportation Services’ barges will leave earlier this season, providing there are no complications from ice or low water levels on the Mackenzie River, says NWT Department of Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann. photo courtesy of Marine Transportation Services

“I think they have to go out of their way to demonstrate not just to Cambridge Bay but to the Kitikmeot region that they’re going to be able to supply the communities,” said Jim MacEachern, who noted that some business owners have already vowed they will never again use the GNWT’s Marine Transportation Services (MTS).

Substandard fuel shipped by the GNWT’s supplier, Imperial Oil, to the Hay River shipyard was loaded into two barges and one of those barges almost made it to Norman Wells before the problem was detected, forcing the vessel to turn back, Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann acknowledged in the NWT legislative assembly on May 29.

Approximately 1.14 million litres of the fuel was deemed to be too volatile due to a low flash point, said Greg Hanna, spokesperson for the department. Initial field tests cleared the fuel for transport and a decision was made to set sail before laboratory tests came back, which later revealed the fuel’s deficiency, according to Hanna.

“If the barges had been held in Hay River, it’s possible the delivery of all other cargo would have been delayed further,” Hanna stated. “We believe our fuel testing processes are reliable and in fact worked in this instance. No off-specification fuel was delivered to the GNWT’s community customers and no changes are planned to our testing processes and methods.”

The GNWT has, however, asked its fuel supplier to increase its inspection of fuel. In addition, the GNWT is planning to store the equivalent of a year’s shipment of barged fuel in tank farms in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk to create a “strategic reserve.”

Schumann also noted that MTS will endeavour to get an earlier start on the shipping season this year, but he cautioned that ice conditions and low water levels on the Mackenzie River could cause complications.

Last year’s substandard fuel cost MTS 28 days. The final barge that was destined for Paulatuk, Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay couldn’t break through thick ice in early October, more than a month behind originally scheduled delivery. After some debate, the GNWT agreed to pay for a costly airlift of some goods into the affected communities, but vehicles were left in storage in Inuvik until the 2019 barging season.

In an interview with Nunavut News last October, the department’s assistant deputy minister John Vandenberg blamed shipping buoys being knocked out by driftwood and the fuel delay – although there was no specific mention of the substandard fuel – for MTS falling behind schedule.

Northern Transportation Company Ltd. (NTCL), the Inuvialuit-owned company that was a precursor to MTS, delivered bad gas in 2002, causing many headaches for Nunavummiut.

Kugluktuk Mayor Ryan Nivingalok said moving goods in the North is rife with obstacles.

“Shipping in the Arctic is always going to be an issue… ice is always a factor,” Nivingalok said.

MTS makes sense for deliveries from the NWT and Alberta, which is where many Kitikmeot residents order their supplies, he said.

“People are still carrying on. They’re still going to use the shipping company.”

However, MacEachern said some Kitikmeot clients will use only Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS) and Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc. (NSSI) going forward, even though it means shipping out of Quebec. NEAS and NSSI have proven reliable over the years, said MacEachern, who has lived in Cambridge Bay for close to a decade.

“Our belief is that MTS could have done far more in getting the material here and in communicating with anyone who had material on that barge (last year),” he said. “The communication was abysmal.”

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